Goalden Times top few moments from World Cup 2014

Every World Cup brings in some unique moments. Some just fade away with time, some gets engraved in the football lovers’ memory forever. Subhashis Biswas from GT handpicks 11 best moments of World Cup 2014.

11. Guillermo Ochoa’s goalkeeping

2

During the second group match of the World Cup against Brazil, the world suddenly took notice of the long curly-haired head-band wearing Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. He saved a Neymar header when the ball was about to enter the goal, by flying to his right, ala Gordon Banks in 1970. He then saved a David Luiz header from point blank range in the second half, by sheer reflex. He again saved a shot from Hulk which had a goal written all over it. The ball did not enter the goal. Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw with Mexico largely due to Ochoa. Ochoa’s heroics continued in the next match against Croatia as well, and he denied Mario Mandzukic and Luka Modric from scoring as Mexico won 3-1 to enter the round of 16. In that match against Netherlands, Mexico was 1-0 up against Netherlands till the 87th minute. Ochoa again saved two close range efforts from the Dutch offense line, and one of the saves were as incredible as it can get, with pure reflex denying the Dutch a sure shot goal. . Finally a Wesley Sneijder thunder and an Arjen Robben theatrics denied Mexico further progress in the World Cup, but Guillermo Ochoa, the ex-AJ Ajaccio goalkeeper, now free agent at that, had won many hearts and applauds for his performances in the World Cup. Big clubs are already lining up to get the signature of this keeper on the dotted line.

10. Flying RVP

RVP

 

In their first group match, Spain was up 1-0 in the match, via a controversially awarded Xabi Alonso penalty following which Diego Costa went down in the box after minimal contact. Netherlands was desperate for an equaliser. Just before the halftime, in the 44th minute, left wing back Dale Blind received a ball near the centre line, towards left side of the pitch. He quickly noticed an advancing Robin van Persie near the Spanish penalty area, with three defenders backtracking towards their goal. Blind delivered a perfect left-footed cross, which took a parabolic trajectory and was going towards the Spanish penalty area. van Persie realised he was a little behind the ball, and also realised that Iker Casillas was way off his goal line. He threw his body in front, as if he was taking off to fly, and headed the cross with his body a good 2-3 feet above the ground, in a flying position. The header exploited the gap Casillas had left behind him and the ball looped inside the Spanish goal leaving the goalkeeper hopelessly stranded. The flying picture position of Robin van Persie was symbolic as it signalled the taking off of the Dutch Wrld Cup campaign (they won the match 5-1, and eventually finished 3rd in the World Cup

9. Spain’s disastrous campaign and early exit

3

The signs were evident in last year’s Confederations Cup. Yet victories in the qualifying campaign forced Vincente del Bosque in denial mode. But the shortcomings of Spain finally got brutally exposed in the final round. Spain ruled the world of football for 6 six years winning everything wthat was there to be won – . 2008 Euro, 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro. They were drawn in a tough group with Netherlands, Chile and Australia, but pundits expected them to win the group. Little did they expect that an ageing midfield, ineffective defence and nonexistent forward line would be unable to put up even a fight against the Dutch and Chile. Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets can no longer execute the “tiki-taka” brand of football with perfection they used to do around three years ago. Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos were never on the same page when an attack came towards Spanish defence. Add the embarrassment of Iker Casillas to this. The legendary goalkeeper, winner of several accolades in his illustrious career, was literally scrambling in kneel-down position inside the penalty area for most of the time against Netherlands and Chile. He conceded seven goals in two matches (in 1-5 loss to Netherlands and 0-2 defeat against Chile), and Spain exited the World Cup just after 180 minutes of football. The future, though, is bright for Spain with a lot of young talents like Ilaramendi, Isco, Thiago Alacantara, David de Gea, waiting in the ranks. But first, the football association has to get out of their self-denial mode.

8. Tim Howard’s heroics

4

USA always comes up with a fighting and spirited display in the World Cup . This time around, it was no exception. They were grouped with eventual winner Germany, always dangerous Portugal, and last edition’s quarter finalists Ghana in Group G. They emerged from that group with four points, defeating Ghana 2-1, sharing spoils with Portugal 2-2, and losing to Germany 0-1. Their inspirational goalkeeper, Everton’s Tim Howard was the mainstay as the last line of defence, making some incredible saves during the group stage, especially against an attacking Portugal side and eventual champions Germany. But Tim Howard’s heroics scaled a different level in the round of 16 match against Belgium. He denied Divock Origi several times; including a fist to clear a thunderous 20-yard drive by the striker. He denied his Everton colleague Kevin Mirallas with his feet in the 76th minute. Vincent Kompany then headed in Kevin de Bruyne’s cross goalwards but Howard’s heroics again denied him. These are just glimpses of Tim Howard’s monumental performance that day. He marshalled the whole defence, and took the game to extra time, only to succumb to goals from Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. He made an incredible total of 16 saves – an all time record for the World Cup in recorded matches (since 1966) – , many of which would have been goals with any other goalkeeper on any other day. USA bowed out losing 1-2, but Tim Howard’s performance will remain as one of the greatest performances by a goalkeeper in a World Cup match.

7. Chile fans stormed media center

8

Chile faced Spain in Estadio Maracana on 18th of June in their second group match, with Chile having a chance to qualify for the next round with a win and knocking Spain out of the World Cup. But chaos is an understatement to what had happened just before the match. About 100 Chilean fans, without tickets to the match, and wearing replica Chile jerseys, broke into the media center inside the Maracana stadium. The fans ran through the media center, then broke a glass door, and took out temporary doors, partitions, TV sets – whatever came their way. Some of the fans started taking photos with their mobile phones as if it was a moment to savour for life!. A group of fans were shouting slogans and flaunting posters. The part of media center was not heavily guarded, and the fans got a free passage, and almost were in the hallway which lead to the field and locker room. The chaos lasted for about 20 minutes before the security personnel cordoned the area and forced about 85 fans to sit in front of a wall. Most of these personnels were later deported from the country within 72 hours. Chilean fans accused FIFA of making the ticket price high in Chile, and selling tickets illegally. According to them, all Chileans should be allowed to enter inside the stadium during a “Chile match” !

6. Klose world record

5

This was his fourth World Cup. Miroslav Klose had already scored five goals each in 2002 and 2006, and four goals in 2010. He needed two more goals in 2014 edition to surpass Ronaldo as all time leading scorer in World Cups. Germany heavily relied on their midfield in this edition of the Cup, with Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil providing the attacking threat upfront. Klose, therefore, was not the main target man, according to Joaechim Loew’s plans. He was an unused substitute in the first match against Portugal, where Muller stole the limelight with a hattrick. Klose came in as substitute for Mario Goetze as Germany was trailing 1-2 to Ghana in their second group match (only time Germany trailed in the whole tournament). Within two minutes of coming in, he tapped in from close range after a corner, to equalise the score at 2-2. Having equalled the goals tally on 15 with Ronaldo,. Klose had to wait till the semifinal match-up against Brazil to score again. Germany routed Brazil 7-1 in that match. Klose scored the second goal for Germany in the 23rd minute in a 7-1 rout. Brazil’s meltdown stole all the limelight , but the silent assassin had done enough to register himself permanently in the World Cup history books.

5. Neymar’s fracture

neymar

The game between Brazil and Colombia in the round of 16 was not for the purists a clean one. Total 54 fouls were committed. Brazil started the brutality with a series of fouls on Colombian youngster James Rodriguez – and ended that match with a staggering 31 fouls — the highest in a World Cup match since they were recorded from1966 – and slowly Colombian defenders and midfielders started to return the favour . Defender Juan Zuniga was probably the most hostile of them all. He committed a foul on Hulk in the first half which should have resulted in a yellow card. But the defining moment came on the 87th minute of the match. Brazil was winning 2-1, and Colombia was in search of an equaliser. An aerial ball came towards Neymar, and Zuniga was just behind him. Before Neymar could reach the ball, Zuniga leap-frogged over Neymar’s shoulder and tried to reach the ball. In the process, Zuniga’s knee collided fiercely with Neymar’s back. Immediately the poster boy of Brazilian football fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Medical help arrived, assessed the seriousness of the injury, and stretchered him off immediately to the hospital. The doctors diagnosed that there is a fracture at the transverse process below third lumbar vertebra, which means the fracture is at the spinal cord ! Had it been a couple of inches lower, Neymar could have been paralyzed for life. The fracture did not require surgery, but needed rest and minimal movement for recovery. Neymar was out of the World Cup, and so was Brazil, a match later, against Germany in the semi-final. Neymar lying on the ground, writhing in pain, became symbolic with Brazil’s exodus from the cup of their dreams.

4. The viral image of David Luiz cheering up James

1

Brazil faced Colombia in the quarter final, with one James Rodriguez hogging as much limelight as Neymar Junior before the match. James Rodriguez had scored five goals in four matches prior to the QF match, with a brace against Uruguay in the round of 16 match. His dazzling runs, dribbles, quick passing, left footed volleys and intelligent positioning had impressed football lovers around the world, and a tough match was on the cards against the Brazilians. Brazil did not give him much space though,; with Fernandinho and Marcello marking him tight during the match, Rodriguez was at the receiving end of many fouls committed by Brazil. Brazil took an early lead via Thiago Silva from the corner, and David Luiz doubled the lead via a free kick in the 2nd half. Rodriguez scored his sixth goal (and would eventually win the Golden Boot) via a penalty in the dying minutes of the match, but Colombia lost 1-2 to bow out of the tournament. Colombia won many hearts through their display of attractive skilful football. James Rodriguez cried inconsolably after the match, as the dream of a budding youngster was shattered by the host nation. David Luiz then walked up to embrace Rodriguez, exchanged jerseys with him, and pointed towards him and encouraged the crowd to appreciate the efforts of this sensational young player. The image of Luiz pointing towards Rodriguez went viral across social and print media, and became a symbol of affection and sportsman spirit during the World Cup.

3. Brazil’s fan handing cup to German fan

6

Clovis Acosta Fernandes,the 58-year old man with the hat and moustache, as the whole world recognises him, has been to every World Cup since 1990 and many a Copa America, totalling to over 150 international matches. He travels with the Brazil team and this is his seventh World Cup, the first one at home. Clovis carried a replica trophy of the World Cup, which is almost exactly of the similar size of the original. Only difference according to him, was that his trophy was “kissed” much more times than the original. He is often known as Brazil’s 12th man.

He was in the stands at Belo Horizonte, on 8th of July during the semi-final between Brazil and Germany. He could not believe what was happening before his eyes. Germany won the match 7-1, leading 5-0 after only 30 minutes of football. The whole country was weeping, crying. Clovis was crying. Clovis hugged the trophy with tearful eyes, as if he did not want to let his dream evaporate and was instantly labelled the the Saddest Man in Brazil all over the international media. But this man has a golden heart. After the match, Clovis walked up to a lady, who was a German fan, , handed the trophy over to her, and said ”Take this trophy with you to Maracana. It is in good hands with you. Congratulations.“ His gesture won him admiration from across the world, and showed everyone that football is all about sportsman spirit and big heart.

2. Ghana cash convoy

Gha

A series of three cars, flanked by five police cars- a convoy of total of eight cars were moving along the highway entering Brasilia, where Ghana was supposed to play Portugal in their last group match. The unusualness of this incident was that- those cars were carrying more than $3 million in cash! Yes, this was probably the only instance in World Cup history where the national federation of a country had to pay that large amount in cash to its players, that too in the face of an imminent threat to boycott just before they took the field in a World Cup match. According to their star player, Kevin- Prince Boateng, the preparation for the World Cup was a shambolic one. The Ghana team had to fly economy class on a a 12-hour flight, and stay in hotel rooms where the ceilings leaked and the rooms were flooded. The players were not paid their dues, and Ghana’s football federation did not use the money they received from FIFA for World Cup preparations. Immediately Boateng and fellow senior player Sulley Muntari were suspended and sent back home by Ghana Football Fedeartion. Ghana’s president John Mahama had to intervene and the “cash convoy” arrived in Brasilia, and the players then agreed to take the field against Portugal. Social media was flooded with the images of the cash convey arriving at the hotel with armed escort and defender John Boye kissing a stack of money after it arrived by armed escort. Apparently the players wanted the money in cash as most of them did not have even bank accounts back home! Ghana lost the match 1-2 and bowed out from the tournament with only 1 point. They were the only team not to be beaten by Germany though (2-2 draw), and only team who actually led eventual winner Germany during the World Cup.

1. Suarez Biting

7

Italy and Uruguay – both the teams were on three points having defeated England and lost to Costa Rica ! The superior goal difference meant Italy needed a draw where Uruguay had to win the match to qualify for the next round. The match was never entertaining, as both the teams were really aggressive and frequent fouls stopped the game from gathering any momentum. . Claudio Marchisio was sent off in the 59th minute, and the Italians were fighting hard to hold off Uruguay for rest of the match. Around the 79th minute of the match, an off the ball incident left the world completely in shock. Luis Suarez had jumped on to Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder, then covered his face with his palm and fell on ground. Chiellini was on the ground as well, but immediately got up, exposed his shoulder from his shirt and showed the bite mark to the referee. Suarez was sitting on the ground holding his teeth!! Referee did not punish Suarez, a bemused and shell shocked Italian team conceded from a corner through Diego Godin two minutes later, and had to go back home.

Suarez and Uruguay team tried to downplay the incident initially, but later, after criticism poured in from around the world, FIFA took the matter seriously. After investigation, FIFA handed a four-month and nine- match ban to Luis Suarez. Uruguay lost to Colombia 0-2 in the round of 16 match and bowed out of the competition.

The Blond Arrow Shoots Away

There are footballers. There are great players.There are legends. And then there is one Alfredo di Stefano. Debopam Roy pays tribute to him through Goalden Times.

Alfredo di Stefano
Alfredo di Stefano
At a time when everyone is gearing up for  clash of the heavyweights in World Cup Semi-finals, the world has lost one of its most illustrious footballers – one who is arguably the best the world of football has ever seen. Alfredo di Stefano, the man whom Real Madrid placed at the top of its numerous legends, has passed away from a heart attack just 4 days after celebrating his 88th birthday. The fact that he passed away after having witnessed his beloved club win its much coveted La Decima of European triumphs, half of which he himself had won in the ‘50s, would have given him a huge satisfaction.

In many ways this is a story of indomitable will and a sense of adventure coupling together to produce the finest and most refined skill one can dream about in any profession. Alfredo Stéfanodi Stéfano Laulhé was born to Alfredo Di Stéfano, a first-generation Italian Argentine, and Eulalia Laulhé Gilmont, an Argentine woman of French and Irish descent on July 4, 1926 in Barracas, a neighbourhood of Buenos Aires.  He was from a farming family and had a gruelling upbringing. This probably ensured his physical prowess and stamina was supremely developed even before his footballing skills could bloom.

His footballing apprenticeship was with the amateur club Los Cardales with whom he won the amateur championship at 12. Within three years, he was included in the youth sector of the famed River Plate who were in the midst of their golden “La Maquina” generation. Di Stefano was a rising star and led them to a stunning championship win in 1947 scoring 27 goals himself.

His next footballing stop was in Colombia with the Millonarios. Over four years, he scored 267 goals for them in just 292 games. So much so that he was also included in the Colombian national team for 4 unofficial matches. This would in turn come back to haunt him as FIFA found him ineligible for the 1954 World Cup team of Argentina since he had made those appearances with Colombia. Earlier he had missed the 1950 world cup as Argentina had refused to participate.

Wizard with the ball
Wizard with the ball

His next footballing stop was Spain and this probably was his most glorious phase. But the start was not glorious as there were controversies galore concerning his transfer from Millonarios to Barcelona and finally to Real Madrid. There are many stories about his transfer from Millonarios to Real Madrid – most outrageous among them is how the Spanish football federation had asked Barcelona and Real Madrid to share the player for four seasons – two seasons each. Ultimately sanity prevailed and he was probably the lead Galáctico in the first set of Galácticos that Real Madrid had hired. And what a set it was. Di Stefano was joined by the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa, Jose Santamaria, Francisco Gento and Hector Rial. Together they would combine to give Real Madrid the first five European Cups. Di Stefano has the unique achievement of scoring four goals in four consecutive winning finals, and then a hat trick in the fifth. His record of seven goals in European final matches is only matched by his partner Puskás, but even his tally came from only two finals. The last of those finals, where Real Madrid played a 7-3 humdinger with Eintracht Frankfurt is still widely regarded as the best European Cup final ever.

One of only 4 players to win 5 European Cups
One of only 4 players to win 5 European Cups

Despite the club level achievements, Di Stefano couldn’t feature in the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup. Having been disqualified from participating for Argentina in 1954, he had acquired Spanish citizenship. Ironically, Spain failed to qualify for the 1958 World Cup and then fate in its unkindest cut, dealt him a muscular injury just before the 1962 competition. He had helped Spain qualify for the finals but himself could not play in that. He retired soon afterward.

For many of us, all that di Stefano embodies is captured in highlight reels and any greatest list compilation but there are some statistics which do not lie, his scoring record for example. His record of 305 goals – in mere 392 matches– for Real Madrid was broken only by Raul. The 49 goals he scored in the European championships in only 58 games stood almost 50 years. His advent in Spanish football meant that Telmo Zarra, the all-time leading scorer in Spanish league ever, did not win another Pichichi Trophy after 1952-53.

The debate between Pele and Maradona seem irrelevant when we hear Pele saying “People talk about the best being Pele or Diego Maradona, but for me the best player ever was Alfredo Di Stefano”. In the same vein, Diego himself would say “I don’t know if I was a better player than Pele but I can say without doubt that Di Stefano was better than Pele.”

In one week’s time we will have a new World Champion. But we have lost one of the champions of the footballing world.

Spain: Creaking at the Top

It’s been barely two weeks into the greatest spectacle of football and we have seen it all — complacency, aggression, surprise and, of course, shock! Here Debopam Roy analyses why the Spanish Armada sank.

It’s been a rollicking World Cup so far with goals galore but before the second week is over, we have already seen two former World Cup champions go out and are sure of the demise of a third. The most shocking has been the exit of current World and European champions Spain. In fact, they have maintained the trend that in the 21st century, no European team, while defending the World Cup has made it beyond the group stage. France started this ignominious trend in 2002. Italy followed in 2010. And now the armada too has fallen.

The Armada Sinks

So complete has been the Spanish domination of world football in the last six years that they have won every major trophy in that time losing just one game (against Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup opener). From there, to be out in 180 minutes is easily the biggest shock in this World Cup.  So what went wrong for the Spanish? On closer analysis one can point at these factors.

Spain crash out of the World Cup 2014 in the group stage
Spain crash out of the World Cup 2014 in the group stage

Team Formation was awry: The striker position has been problematic for Spanish managers ever since Fernando Torres went off the boil. The best striker since then has been David Villa but at 32, he is a peripheral figure in this team and was supposed to be an impact sub. Vincent del Bosque never tried Villa’s angular runs in this World Cup, instead he has tried out his club mate Diego Costa who had scored more than twice the number of goals Villa did at Atletico Madrid this season. But Costa had only played twice matches with the Spanish team before the World Cup. His club form was under a manager who orchestrates a completely different sort of tactics to the tiki taka of La Furia Roja.  For a seasoned manager like Del Bosque, it was astounding that he didn’t try out the striker-less false 9 formation with which he had won the 2012 Euro. Cesc Fabregas, did come on but only as a second striker to support either Costa or Torres.

The Xavi factor: Xavi Hernández has been operating the springs which has run the Spanish (and indeed Barcelona) clock for six years. In this tournament, he played the first match and had 91% pass accuracy. But critically he had only two through balls and no key pass in the entire match. In fact, only three of his passes actually were completed where the target was inside the opponent’s penalty box. That is as damning a statistic as any. Del Bosque dropped him for the second match.

The question of width: Spain had no width at all in their match against the Dutch. The wingbacks were supposed to provide the width between them. In the horror show against the Oranje, Cesar Azpilicueta had two crosses from wide areas – one more than Jordi Alba, the left back. That number improved to six with three crosses each in the second match. Just to give a comparison, in the Euro 2012, the Spanish team averaged 16 crosses per match. When Xavi was sacrificed in the second match, Pedro was brought in – evidently to provide width but he had no successful crosses despite having three take-ons. With no width, Spain didn’t have any alternative if the opponent crowded the middle third to spoil the tiki taka rhythm.

No More Saint:  3, 2, 1. what comes next? The answer is 7 and counting. Iker Casillas is one of those handful players who have won everything there is to win as a player at club and national level. He had only conceded three goals in Euro 2008, two in 2010 World Cup and one in Euro 2012. This arithmetic progression ended spectacularly when he conceded five in the first match. Except for the goals by Arjen Robben, culpability can be put on the captain for each of the rest. He gifted the fourth, missed the flight on the third and despite the superlative dive from Robin Van Persie on the first, Casillas’ position was all awry on the first. Not that he was helped much by his defence. The first choice pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were slow, kept a wide chasm between them and seldom provided the solidity that one Carlos Puyol always provided. On both the goals from Robben as well as the third Dutch goal, the defence was at sixes and sevens. So piqued was Del Bosque that he dropped Pique for the second match and brought in Javi Martinez, but clearly there was no understanding between him and Ramos either.

Iker Casillas
Iker Casillas

Missing Hunger: Casillas had famously commented that La Decima is more important than the World Cup. This group of players has been winning trophies at club and national level for so long that they assumed that just turning up would be sufficient and did not care about intensity. Robben’s pace, Van Persie’s finishing and the intensity of every Chilean showed that up. Somehow the Spanish were complacent and not playing with their heart in it. Evidently the Madrid players were sated with their Champions League win, the Barcelona players apart from Iniesta had a mediocre season and the only Atletico player to start the games, Costa was awful.

Del Bosque misses a beat: It is not new. In 2010, Marcello Lippi had filled his team with his 2006 trophy winning side without bothering to include fresh faces. The result was getting dumped out from a group consisting of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Vincent Del Bosque wasn’t so radical and did include some youngsters like Javi Martinez, Koke, David De Gea and Azpilicueta. However, only Azpilicueta and Martinez started. The manager also didn’t use the mature players well. Players like Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata could have been the creative spark that Spain has lacked.  The continued faith on Torres in spite of him having poor club seasons meant that other strikers like Alvaro Morata, Markel Susaeta, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado were left at home.

Looking Ahead

It is the end of a generation of tremendously gifted players. One would be surprised to see the likes of Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Villa or Torres in Spanish colours again. Spain has been winning the European competitions across age levels too and the supply line is already there.Spanish infrastructure and youth development system is still churning out talents aplenty. This disaster does not point to the overall failure of the system, rather augments the point that some of the stars have been persisted with beyond their shelf life. They need a new manager with fresh ideas who could frame a team with the likes of Koke, Thiago Alcantara, De Gea, Iker Munian and such players. They may not herald another generation of tiki taka domination, but they could well make for a strong Spanish team to Russia in 2018.

FIFA World Cup With Bollywood Curry

With World Cup just around the corner we re-imagined few of the cult Bollywood movie posters and gave them a football twist in a a humorous, cryptic and minimalist way to wish luck few of the popular nations. This is nothing official but to spice up the month long journey coming ahead. Enjoy – Football in Filmy Attire (in short we call it FIFA).

Argentina – Will He or won’t He be a witness this time?

argentina

Brazil – The zeal for beauty

brazil

England – For the Lion hearted

england

France- Head vs heart. Can they overcome the battle within?

France

Germany – Can they steel a win?

germany

Italy – What’s cooking, Pastafarians?

italy

Netherlands – Thirsting for a win

netherland

Spain – Will the bull run continue for the reigning champions?

spain

B for Bestest

After covering Group A in our last post, here comes the Group B preview. Analysis by Debojyoti Chakraborty.

Group B features the last World Cup finalists and a very good Chilean side. So, eventually one of thesetop two teams willhave to cut a sorry face. Apart from the tag of Group of Death, there are other complicated issues in Group B. There is a small incentive for the winner of this group – in all likelihood they would avoid the Seleçãoin the first knock-out stage. So, it seems that the winner of the first match of this group – Spain vs Netherlands, will most likely not only survive the group but also get an easier opponent in the Round of 16.

 

PowerPoint Slide Show - [World Cup Design] 5242014 112249 PM.bmp

 
 

world-cup-winners-spain_3047424

Spain remained unbeaten throughout their qualification campaign, never had to come back in any of those matches. They dropped occasional points, but nothing to really worry about their qualification.

Spain has been ruling the charts for quite sometime now. They have won virtually everything – 2010 World Cup, 2012 Euro – only to stumble at the final hurdle at Confederations Cup last year. They have to defend their world crown in the same nation. Last time, kinks in the seemingly invincible Spanish armada were found with an ageing squad having to play under the scorching heat of the midday sun. Their task is not any easier this time round.

La Rojawill be playing a familiar high pressing, short passing game with a side boasting stars from Real Madrid and Barcelona. Their full-backs Daniel Carvajal and Jordi Alba will play like virtual wingers while they have possession. Centre-back pairing of Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will also be joining the play near or beyond the halfway line. A midfield line-up featuring Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andreas Iniesta, David Silva and CescFabregas would give nightmares to any opponent. Players of the calibre of Koke, Isco and AsierIllarramendi have not been – or eventually will not be – able to make the squad; such is the plethora of talent in the Spanish midfield. On top of that, Diego Costa will slot in as the centre forward and for years, Vicente Del Bosque just might be relieved of his central striker problem.

Spain lost their opener against Switzerland last time and then went on to win their maiden glory – the first team to lift the cup after starting with a loss. This edition, they can ill afford that kind of warm up time. Spain has been drawn in a difficult group but still should make the next round. Only question is whether they can top the group and get a potentially easier opponent in the round of 16. In all probability, they should.

 
 

Fullscreen capture 5242014 112919 PM.bmp

 
 
holland_football_team
 

After losing to Spain in the final of the 2010 World Cup, Netherlands went through a torrid time. They failed to secure a single point at the 2012 EURO – after being drawn in a tough group featuring Germany, Portugal and Demark. But to their credit, Netherlands did perform quite well in the qualifying campaign. They dropped only two points in the 10 matches they played, scored aplenty (34) and achieved the best goal difference in the European qualifiers (+29).

Their opponents during the qualification – none of them featured in the top 30 FIFA ranking – did not put up any fight. But the Dutch are facing an uphill task right from the group stages of this World Cup. Progress to the next round is not guaranteed and there is a surprisingly negative feeling amidst the supporters.

As always, Netherlands has a star-studded squad. Rafael van der Vaart (Hamburg) Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), ArjenRobben (Bayern Munich) and Robin van Persie (Manchester United) are stars in their own rightand form an awesome foursome upfront. Van Persiehas even scored 11 goals in the qualifying campaign to go past Patrick Kluivert as the all-time highest goal scorer for the Dutch. The main man, however, will be Robben – swapping positions in a free flowing midfield and suddenly bursting up through either flanks.

But the Oranje have time and again failed to gel as a cohesive unit. This time the pressure will be even more on manager Louis van Gaal as they will have to deal with an inexperienced back line and midfield. Many believe this tournament has come in too soon for many of them. Don’t be surprised if they fail to make the cut.

 
 

Fullscreen capture 5242014 112931 PM.bmp

6E8268C98CB25D3C5EDBF4A12F2AC

 
 

Making this group even tougher is Chile – another La Roja. Chile’s recent record is quite good – they finished third in South American qualifying, drew with Spain and defeated England in friendlies, and had lost only two of their 15 matches last year. This March they showcased a spirited display of aggressive pressing and fluent passing against the mighty Germans where they finally lost by a solitary goal.

Chile has qualified for two consecutive World Cups for the first time in their history. They had finished their journey in the round of 16 in South Africa last time. This time they have their best side ever in the tournament but as luck would have it, are drawn in the toughest group in the competition. As their manager Jorge Sampaoli put it: “The margin for error is zero.” Even if they do qualify, they face a repeat of their last match from four years back at the same stage of the tournament – they would most likely line up against the hosts.

Chile has ample star power in their ranks in the form of Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal and Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez. They also have some young and improving players like Eduardo Vargas, who is enjoying two back-to-back fruitful seasons after being loaned out of Napoli. Chile will never die wondering for sure.They were the second highest scorer in the qualifiers, but also let slip the most number of goals. So one thing is for sure, embrace yourselves for some spicy Chile action.

But having to face the finalists from 2010 – Spain and Netherlands – qualifying for the knockout round itself will be a major success for them. But count them out at your own risk. Also, watch out for the enthusiasm for Sampaoli. He has previously not hesitated to shout instructions from the tree-top after being shown a red card!!!

 
 

Fullscreen capture 5242014 112943 PM.bmp

4763798-3x2-940x627

Australia – now a member of the Asian Football Federation – qualified for the World Cup from their group behind Japan, but the journey has been anything but smooth. They could not get a win in their first three matches, upped the tempo to win their last five matches and got the green signal seven minutes from time in their final match against Iran.

Australia will start the competition with no pressure whatsoever. Nobody expects them to win anything – many back home will not crib if they fail to get even a single point. They are the lowest ranked team to feature this year and are drawn in the toughest group.

New manager Ange Postecoglou took charge of an ageing team as recently as in December, 2013 after they were thrashed in couple of friendlies following a dismal qualifying campaign. His main task would be to induct some fresh blood instead of relying too much on the fading stars like Tim Cahill. Leading this young brigade could be Australia’s Player of the Year, Mile Jedinak. The midfield architect is no stranger to grinding out results, being captain of the struggling Crystal Palace and he would be vital in adding some steel to this team. It will be unfair to expect the Aussies to set the stage on fire. As any other team with limited ambitions, they would just crowd around their own penalty box, shut the door and try to score through quick counter attacks.

The Soccerooshave progressed remarkably over the last decade, but are still no match for any of the teams they would be playing against. But they can play spoilsport and decide the fate of this group.

Predictions

While the rematch of 2010 World Cup final on the very second day of the 2014 edition sets the stage on fire, one would be really brave to undermine the challenge posed by Chile. If either of the 2010 finalists – or both of them – is caught off-guard,the tiny Latin American nation will be ready to pounce in. Even if this challenge is negotiated, the mighty Brazil awaits them in the next round. Looks like, a winner takes all for this group.

Passing Shot

Diego Costa has represented his native country Brazil last year but then decided to turn up for his country of birth, Spain. Those matches being friendlies, Costa was in a position to choose the country he prefers to represent internationally.

Spain had gone past both Chile and Netherlands en route World Cup 2010 victory.  But they will have very little knowledge about the Aussies – this will be their first ever international meeting. Similarly this will be the first competitive match between Chile and Netherlands.

Spain Writes History

Rarely is there a team that lives up to expectations on a sustained basis. Spain can be easily counted among them as they continue their domination in world football. Indranath Mukherjee sketches their glorious journey in Euro 2012

Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain became the first European nation to win the World Cup outside European soil when they triumphed in South Africa in 2008. Euro 2012 pre-tournament big question was whether they will be the first ever nation to successfully defend the Henri Delaunay trophy. They had a 100% record in the qualification with eight wins from as many games and followed it up with a 5-0 thrashing of Venezuela in a friendly. However, in other friendlies post World Cup 2010, Spain did show glimpses of doubt – losing 4-1 to Argentina, 4-0 to Portugal, 2-1 to Italy and 1-0 to England. But in the matches that matter, Spain’s record under Del Bosque is almost flawless. Although the 61-year old modest and unassuming man as always shun the limelight by giving it to his players: “I feel very privileged to have coincided with a generation of such brilliance”.

Spain came to Euro 2012 as the clear favourites although Juan Castro of Marca thought that “Germany is in a strong position to end the Spanish era.” Netherlands also came to the tournament with a near perfect qualifying round scoring an impressive 38 goals in 10 games with nine wins. Italy also had a terrific run in the qualification campaign and the curious (or spurious) correlation between scandals in their domestic football leagues and success in international tournaments (World Cups 1982 and 2006) had ominous signs for other teams.

Spain had their share of problems with Carlos Puyol and David Villa missing the tournament owing to injury and all the experts thought that due to the indifferent form of talismanic front man Fernando Torres, the Athletic Bilbao target man Fernando Llorente will be at the receiving end of all the chances that the fluent Spanish midfield would create. But Del Bosque preferred tiki-taka over being more direct; as a result Jesus Navas got very little playing time and Llorente did not get any.

Vicente Del Bosque, the soft-spoken football genius did something which none had done before, twice

Spain’s first group match was against Italy and Del Bosque started with a headless formation. The team started playing a version of tiki-taka which was more about passing the ball to wear the opposition out than creating chances for them. Two numbers from the 2010 World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany sum up the result of this strategy – Spain had produced 160 passes more and Germany ran 1.2 miles more. The Italians, however, were up for the challenge and played a surprisingly attacking brand of football. The first goal of the match came in the 61st minute when Antonio Di Natale, who came from the bench in place of Mario Balotelli, first touched the ball. Spain was quick to react to get the equaliser through Cesc Fàbregas. The match finished 1-1 with the Italian side a tad more impressive.

Spain approached the second game against Republic of Ireland little differently with scorer of the first game Fàbregas giving way to Fernando Torres in the starting line-up. The impact was immediate; Torres scored his first of the two in the game in the fourth minute. Spain went on to win the match 4-0.

Spain was back to six midfielders and no striker in the final group game against Croatia and played their brand of offensive yet defensive football. Navas who came in as a substitute scored the only goal of the match in the 88th minute.

The quarter-final between Spain and France turned out to be one of the most underwhelming matches of the tournament. Spain continued to play without any striker and Laurent Blanc’s French side looked overcautious to stop Andrés Iniesta while Xabi Alonso celebrated his century of international caps with a goal in either half of the game.

Xabi Alonso celebrated his 100th international cap with a brace

The semi-final between Spain and Portugal was a much awaited affair with the Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo looking to drag his team to the peak. Del Bosque gave a surprise start to the Sevilla front man Álvaro Negredo who remained anonymous until replaced by Fàbregas in the 54th minute. After a not-so-inspiring 90 minutes, Spain did show some flair in the extra time and finally won the game 4-2 on penalties. Del Bosque later revealed that Cesc wanted to take the fifth penalty to be able to take the winner whereas Cristiano Ronaldo who was to take Portugal’s fifth one did not get to take his as the match was already decided.

The penalty of the tournament until this game was the atrocious Panenka by Andrea Pirlo against England in the quarter-final. Sergio Ramos, whose penalty in the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich had reached outer space as per rumour, did a Panenka with élan.

The Panenka by Sergio Ramos was more than a penalty; it was about making a statement

The final was all where it started in Group C. By then not everyone was convinced about Spain and Italy looked solid as ever with a complete demolition of the Germans in the semi-final where even the postman celebrated. Italy started the game well and before David Silva scored the first goal in the 14th minute, they actually looked almost equal to Spain, if not marginally better. Spain started with the now usual headless formation but their football was sharper, more attacking version of tiki-taka with an interesting mix of direct football. Jordi Alba’s brilliant strike in the 41st minute came from a brilliant Xavi Hernández through and by that time Italy was completely down and out. Spain added further assault when the substitute Torres scored in the 84th minute and finally Juan Mata, who came in as a substitute in the 87th minute, scored with his first touch. The final result 4-0 is an ample testimony of Spain’s supremacy in international football today.

The victory parade in Madrid after writing a new chapter in international football

The current Spain side shows that success indeed breeds success. Up until Euro 2008, they were tagged as the serial underachievers of international football. But with the golden generation of footballers and a strong belief in their brand of football, Spain became the second team to win three successive major tournaments after Argentina who had won the Copa America (then called the South American Championships) in 1945, 1946 and 1947. As Juan Mata put it succinctly, “There’s a real faith in the approach now; the legacy of victory is a confidence for the future too”.

What is even bad news for other footballing powerhouses worldwide is that the current Spanish team does not show any sign of slowing down. Barring Xavi, no one’s on the wrong side of 30 and we may well find the same bunch of players in the forthcoming World Cup 2014 in Brazil, unless they get replaced by even better ones – only to make them a more unbeatable lot. Although the possibility is not an overtly optimistic one, the Spanish supply line is in full throttle. Their Under-19 team just won the UEFA European championship barely a week ago.

Tactical Evolution at Euro 2012

With the UEFA Euro 2012 having drawn to a close, pundits decipher the new trends in football. While some tactical displays have caught the eyes and might just pave the way for future of football, some strategies simply did not work and will pass on like a fad. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings it all under one roof here

Azzurri turn the clock with a three-man backline

The Azzurri started the tournament with an abandoned 3-5-2 formation. Their three-central-defender ploy worked to an extent as they were able to hold on to a hard-fought draw against the mighty Spanish team. They must have been influenced by Juventas and Napoli, who deployed a pure three-back system successfully last season in Serie A. Such was their influence, 16 other teams had experimented with this strategy sometime or other in the last season.  Elsewhere, Barcelona also plays with a lop-sided 4-3-3 where Dani Alvez pushes further up the flank to make it similar to 3-4-3. Major criticism of this system has been its tactical deficiency especially playing against a solo forward. One of the central defenders marks the lone striker when another one covers him. The third member of the back trio now becomes redundant and hence the opponent gets a man advantage. This is exactly what happened when Spain had a focal point in attack in the form of Fernando Torres as he exploited the high line of Italy. Yet Cesare Prandelli used the system well as a shock element and bamboozled his opponents. It allowed the strikers to play further up the pitch and their interlinking with the advanced central midfielder duo became more dangerous. As the tournament went on, Prandelli reverted to a traditional back four but the opposition teams were always guessing which strategy they will be up against in the next match.

 Three Lions deploy two banks of four

Roy Hodgson, the newly appointed England coach admitted before the tournament started that they do not quite belong to the group of big boys at this moment. Also, he made no secret of the fact that England lack a midfield maestro who can influence the game like an Andres Iniesta or Andrea Pirlo.  So he thought, “If I cannot play a free flowing attacking game, let me stop the opponent from doing so.” In came the (in)famous Chelsea model – implement two rows of four men to counter the attacking threat of the opponent. To start with, it was a 4-4-1-1 but the midfielders dropped back without fail when England lost possession. The graphic blow was a regular occurrence for the Three Lions when the midfielders provided an extra shield to their defenders. The front men also tucked in as Hodgson was keen to keep the shape. No English player was caught offside in the group stages – a statistic which shows their lack of desire and ambition. This is a model which is used for smaller teams playing against more accomplished opponents, but they invariably get broken down due to superior skill of the stronger team or as the fatigue creeps in due to humongous work rate during the closing stages of the match. Once in a while, this defensive strategy might just work, but do not expect this system to appeal much to the football lovers.

German counter punch to the flavour of the season

With the beginning of this century, holding midfielders have grown in importance in world football. With the commencement of this decade, teams have started using two of them to counter attack threat of opposition and thus 4-2-3-1 seems to be a favoured option for most of the teams. Having two men anchoring the midfield in the form of destroyers frees up the full-backs to venture forward. It also allows the coaches having to find only one decent striker in the starting line-up as they have been an endangered species of late. Some teams look to play a midfield diamond but very rarely have we seen any team starting without a defensive midfielder. Joachim Löw figured out if he starts with two proper box-to-box midfielders, then it will be very difficult for the opponent to mark them. Thus if Samir Khedira lunges forward to join the likes of Mesut Ozil, Mario Gomez, Lucas Podolski et al, Bastian Schweinsteiger will stay back. If the opportunity comes, he can join the attack and Khedira will automatically drift back. This kind of strategy works brilliantly as the midfielders will have a roaming role and neither of them is being restricted to merely hold the fort.

Khedira with Schweinsteiger

I’ll have them all – La Espanyol style

Spain is undoubtedly the team of this generation, if not the greatest national team ever to have embraced the game. So powerful is their current squad that Vicente Del Bosque can easily field two teams against each other and it will be very difficult to say which team will emerge victorious. Well, Spain did use their squad depth to some extent when they had as many as six midfielders in their starting line-up. Playing Cesc Fabregas in a ‘false nine’ role was a decision tempted by the injury of David Villa, indifferent form of Fernando Torres and inexperience at the highest stage for others around. This was the toast of the season with all the teams baffled by this striker-less formation. It will be interesting to see if teams worldwide can reproduce this system – having a strong team where each player can play different roles will be a must – but Spain did come up with a master class as they went on to lift another major trophy with some ease.

Spanish Armada in Euro 2012

Passing Thought

Teams have become more fluid now. Micro Tactics, as they call it, defines the minutes of movements of a player during the course of any particular match. This may sound like making the game more mechanical which prevents the creative players from showcasing a moment of magic. Of course not! Top class players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will roam around the pitch to influence the game as much as possible. But it will then be the responsibility of others around to fill in different roles to augment their main playmaker’s movement. This allows coaches to change shape during a match without bringing in any substitute. Sometimes this can be done to create an impact in the match – as Real Madrid tinkers around from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 – or to exploit any susceptible weakness of the opposition – as Joachim Löw assesses the match to shift from one formation to another. This is exactly how a football manager game is played – players will have a starting position but their role will keep on changing continuously.

Step On To Greatness: Euro Final Preview

Match Facts

Final: Italy vs Spain

Sunday, 01 July 2012

2045 (local time); 1445(EST); 0015(IST)

Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy, Kiev

There are quite a few self-help books which preach how one can achieve success in life or attain greatness. Most of them have a particular tenet in them – Belief in your own ability. Euro 2012 has thrown two teams in the final, who have had to pass through the extreme test of not just overpowering the opposition, but also those that concern your inner demons. Sometimes those demons are situational – like what Spain are enduring. Once hailed as the ultimate footballing spectacle – the tiki taka brand of passing is now derided by most of the footballing fraternity as a defensive and boring tactics. It doesn’t inspire the joie-de-vivre of 2008 or 2010. The fact that Spain has not conceded a goal in a knockout round of games, stretching back to 2008 Euros is what is often forgotten, highlighting the million passes that they have played in those games. But really, is it so dramatic a shift on Spain’s part? They have probably the best set of passers in any European midfield banded together, who can protect the ball as well as do damage to the opposition. It’s a different thing, and protecting the ball has been more important to Spain in 2012 Euros than doing damage to the opposition. A stat which illustrates that is that in Euro 2008, Spain completed 33 passes per shot; in 2010 World Cup, it went up to 44 and in Euro 2012 they have completed 58 passes for each shot. That Spain have not started Pedro and Jesus Navas, shows they have abandoned their wing play. And then couple that with the situation of not starting a forward and you get a team that is clinging to its strength to the extreme that they are only concerned about the result and not about the manner in which it is obtained. There are many amongst us, who swear by the quality of the game and not the result. If we call them Purists, then Spain definitely needs an exorcism or two. It’s been a strange journey, where a style of play, so much applauded and appreciated for its invigorating nature, has become an object of negativity – tiki taka being represented as tikitakanechio because it has embraced a functionality to itself that was once purely creative.

Italy score through Di Natale in the group opener…
…but Fabregas equalises via a Silva assist

It’s been exactly an opposite ride for Italy under Cesare Prandelli. A man who was entrusted with the job of pulling the Azzurri out from the ashes of Marcello Lippi’s egoistic bonfire of 2010 world cup campaign, Prandelli has already done the unthinkable. His Italy has carved an identity which is unique in the Azzurri history. Here comes a team that has become likable, exciting, attacking, and creative and the neutral’s favourite. This is a far cry from all the great Italy teams of yore (and there are quite many of them). Gone are the adjectives – boring, defensive, cynical and most importantly the C word (you can now find it attached to Spain). The great Italian teams were defined by one word – functional. They just knew how to win, even if it came via less than spectacular means. Prandelli, has changed that. His Italy side are arguably the most attacking unit in the Euros, having created more chances and more shots on target than any other team.  The defense is still strong (though Spain has conceded 2 less goals), the midfield is creative and the attack line actually playes 2 strikers, without lumping-it-forward-to-the-big-man style that most teams playing 2 forwards (like England) did. Prandelli has a vision and this Italy has shown it is capable of winning, while still sticking to that vision. The nature of difficulties that this team has faced are not minor: top striker breaking his leg and not coming to the euro; top striker with a heart disease that almost finished his career; top defender ruled out at last moment due to a attention-seeking dawn raid by the police; country prime minister calling for the team to withdraw from Euro 2012 only days before it was to start and many more. Let’s just say, that no Italian fan would have been disappointed if Italy had exited at its first hurdle. The team was not thought to be ready. The players were not thought to be fit. The group was thought to be really tricky. And yet three weeks down the line, there is only one team that has never fallen behind in any match and that team is not the reigning world and European champions. It has been a story of far greater magnitude than the tournament itself. Win or lose the final, Prandelli and Italy has already assured they are winners in their own rights. Whether this relaxes them to a victory or makes them complacent and leads to a defeat is the point to see.

.

.

The battle that would define the Europe Crown

.

Both teams are on the cusp of greatness. One team can cement its name as the finest of all time by winning three major championships that no European team has ever done. It may only be a statistical greatness but one that history would always cite. The other team can redefine the entire nature of how the whole world sees them – by doing what no other Italian team has done – win while entertaining. It is a battle for immortality. And the team that trusts its strength more will prevail in the end.

Form Guide

Spain and Italy are rightly the only teams which are undefeated in the tournament (though England too, technically, can claim a pie off that moniker). Both teams have been extremely successful in their defense – conceding 1 and 3 goals respectively. Attack wise too, Spain have scored more goals Italy, have played more passes than Italy. Deservedly, they will start as favourites for the match. What the Italians can look back though is that, the only time Spain looked shaky and actually fell behind, was when they played the Italians in the group opener. Italy largely bossed Spain in that match and can claim the moral victory. A similar performance is not beyond them, especially with many of the misfiring elements – Cassano and Balotelli getting into form. The central defense is stronger by the return of Andrea Barzagli, whose absence, had in effect forced Prandelli to start Daniele de Rossi as a central defender in that match. De Rossi, Marchisio and Montolivo have been outstanding in the semi final victory and can match anything the much vaunted Spanish midfield can throw.

Does the Postman Ring Twice?

Teams & Formations

Both teams have tried novel tactical arrangements – Spain’s 4-6-0, which incidentally was popularised by Luciano Spalletti at Roma and hence quite well known among the Italian players and Prandelli and Italy’s 3-5-2 which is unique as not a single top level international team plays with 3 central defenders. It was a reactionary measure to Italy’s 3-0 thrashing by Russia in a pre-tournament friendly. Prandelli though started with 3-5-2 and then shifted to his better known 4-1-2-1-2 as the matches went on. But that first match between Italy & Spain hangs heavy on both managers. Spain were far more dangerous once Navas and Torres had come on in the second half. Should del Bosque start with them in the final? If anything, a 4-1-2-1-2 isolates the Italian sidebacks even more and Navas (and Pedro?) can haunt them even more. But it makes Spain weak in the centre of the field and Italy can hurt them there. Moreover which of the 6 midfielders (from the 4-6-0) does Del Bosque drop, if he is to play Navas (and/or Pedro) and Torres. Can Spain afford to put their faith in Torres? Can Prandelli double guess Del Bosque and start 3-5-2 anticipating another striker-less formation? Or should he trust his own team’s strength and play the 4-1-2-1-2. There are many questions and all of it makes it all the more fascinating tactical duel between two managers who have been known to be affable and polite gentlemen.

Will he start tonight?

Italy (4-1-2-1-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Ignazio Abate, Leonardo Bonucci, , Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini; Andrea Pirlo;  Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi; Riccardo Montolivo; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Spain (4-6-0): Iker Casillas; Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Andrés Iniesta

Manager: Vincent Del Bosque

Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal)

Quotes

“It’s the greatest joy that we could have given to our people. It’s a joy that they also transmit to us because some pictures and images don’t leave you unmoved, of course, and they make you feel very proud inside.”

Gianluigi Buffon, Italy Goalkeeper and Captain.

“There are a lot of parallels between Italy and Spain: we were in the same group, in either the quarter-finals or semi-finals we went through on penalties, and Pirlo and [Sergio] Ramos scored Panenka-style penalties. You have to like both teams. We both deserve to be finalists.”

Vincent Del Bosque, Spanish Manager

Croatians Return Home with their Heads held High

Croatia 0 – 1 Spain(Navas 88)

Croatia’s brave display against La Roja still wasn’t sufficient to earn them a draw as they were wasteful in front of goal. After Spain’s dominant display against Ireland, one could not have foretold the below-par performance La Roja put up at the Gdansk Arena. Fans had to brook a poor display for most parts of the game before Jesus Navas put the Spaniards a goal up to allay fears. Aftermath of their group stage exit meant early exit for coach Slaven Bilic who had already declared that he would resign from the post at the end of the tournament. The result cemented Spain’s status as group C winners with Italy securing runner-up position via a 2-0 win over Ireland in the other group game.

Celebration Time
Celebration Time

Slaven Bilic lined his troops in a 4-2-3-1 formation, sacrificing Everton striker Nikica Jelavic in the process. Dinamo Zagreb fullback Domagoj Vida replaced Darijo Srna at right back position. Pranjic replaced Ivan Perisic to form a triad of Pranjic, Modric and Darijo Srna behind Mandzukic as the lone striker with Rakitic and Vukojevic in front of the defence. On the other hand, Vicente Del Bosque’s side paraded the same starting line-up and formation in their 4-0 defeat of England.

A 2-2 draw would have ensured qualification for both sides. Darijo Srna and Iker Casillas led their teams as captains in a dandy atmosphere in Gdansk. The game kicked-off and settled into Spain controlling possession and Croatia pressurising the Spaniards to hit on the break. The game was halted briefly in the 7th minute because of the presence of a flare on the pitch which befogged Casillas’ goal. On 12 minutes, an array of carefully knitted passes culminated in an opening for Iniesta whose shot was held by Pletikosa. Srna’s intentional foul on Alba on 19 minutes was accompanied by a stern warning from Wolfgang Stark. Croatia’s game plan was pretty clear; drop deep in large numbers to win the ball then hit Spain on the break. Fernando Torres’ attempt on goal from the right side of the box was blocked by Pletikosa. Ramos unleashed a shot from thirty yards a minute later which Pletikosa smothered. Pique’s ambitious effort from range whistled over the bar. Pranjic’s shot on 26 minutes wasn’t a problem for Casillas. Mandzukic blazed over seconds later from a Srna pass. Brilliant play from Mandzukic a minute later ended in penalty appeals which the referee waved. Mandzukic outwitted Pique and glided into the box only for Ramos to take him out with a strong tackle without winning the ball. Vedran Corluka picked up a booking for arguing with the referee. Silva’s volley on the edge of the box after some enterprising play was too tame to trouble Pletikosa. Spain continued to enjoy possession, showcasing lovely passing but they were reduced to half chances. It ended 0-0 at half time with news of Cassano putting the Italians ahead in Poznan.

It was a positive start from the Blazers after the restart who earned an early corner that was swung towards Corluka but he was penalised for a foul on Pique. Ivan Strinic was booked for a shove on Silva. Croatia had a great chance to take the lead in the 59th minute. Modric broke down the right and cut inside before crossing for an unmarked Rakitic who nodded at Casillas from six yards out. Del Bosque replaced the disappointing Fernando Torres with Jesus Navas. In a bold move, Bilic sent Jelavic and Perisic into the game to replace Pranjic and Vida. Spain continued to pass the ball around without really having a clear-cut chance as the Croatians defended expertly. On 79 minutes, Spain were presented with a great opportunity. Four on four on the Counter attack, Croatia’s backline was finally exposed but Busquets allowed Srna to win the ball with a perfectly timed sliding tackle. With 10 minutes to go, it became end to end action, the Croatians changing to a high defensive line in a bid to get a goal. Their strategy change allowed Spain to be finally released from the half cut chances they were reduced them to. Former Arsenal striker Eduardo was introduced into the game in place of Vukojevic. Croatia needed a goal but it was  Spain who got their goal through Navas two minutes from full time. A ball over the back four found Iniesta. The Barcelona midfielder evaded the offside trap to square the ball to Navas. Navas slotted the ball coolly into an empty net.

Dejected Luka Modric after the loss
Dejected Luka Modric after the loss

POST MATCH THOUGHTS

Croatia did brilliantly to keep Spain at bay for most part of the game and couldn’t have done much more than that other than take their chances. They could have claimed a draw had they not had to come all out in search of a goal. Slaven Bilic has the tough group stage draw to rue.

Croatia (4-2-3-1): Pletikosa; Strinis, Schildenfeld, Corluka, Vida (Jelavic 66); Rakitic, Vukojevic (Eduardo 81); Pranjic (Perisic 66), Modric, Srna; Mandzukic.

Spain (4-3-3): Casillas; Alba, Ramos, Pique, Arbeloa; Alonso, Busquets, Xavi (Negredo 89); Iniesta, Torres (Navas 61), Silva (Fabregas 73).

QUOTES

“I don’t see them as the really big favourites. There are quite a few teams that maybe have more pace and are hungry to win and maybe more aggressive on the pitch than Spain.” – Slaven Bilic on Spain’s chances of success in the tournament.

“We suffered.” -Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.

A Sneak Peek: Stars of UEFA Euro 2012 Group C

We continue our build-up to the Euro 2012 with the rising stars of Group C. Debopam Roy profiles them

 

Goalden Times has started the countdown to Euro 2012 with the reviews of Groups (A, B, C, D). In this feature we bring you some of the players who have the potential to become stars in Poland & Ukraine. Here we focus on Group C.

   Spain

Name: Iker Muniain

Age: 19

Club: Athletic Bilbao

Position: Winger/Forward

National Caps: 1

Current Market value: €20m

Iker Muniain has been labelled a prodigy since he joined the cantera of Athletic Bilbao in 2005 as a 12-year-old. His diminutive stature alongwith his pace and dribbling skills had marked him out as a special talent. He has a host of youngest player ever awards – youngest player ever to wear Athletic’s shirt in an official game, at 16 years 7 months 11 days; youngest ever player to score a goal (16 years 7 months and 18 days) in an official match; youngest player to have donned the club’s shirt in La Liga and youngest player to score in a first division match for Bilbao. Having rushed through the Spanish age group squads in three years, Muniain finally got his senior debut in February this year. His goals and assists have propelled the club to their first ever European final in over 35 years. The virtuoso performance against the two finalists of last season’s Champions League viz. ManchesterUnited and Barcelona, has shown how he can fight with the big boys. He may not be a starter for Spain but on the back of his stupendous season, would definitely merit a call-up and play the role of an impact sub. Don’t count out some dazzling play from the “SpanishMessi”.

Italy

Name: Angelo Ogbonna

Age: 23

Club: Torino

Position:  Defender

National Caps: 2

Current Market value: €6m

The story of Angelo Ogbonna is not probably as colourful as other African origin players of Italy like Mario Balotelli, but it is a story played out of the prying eyes and in Torino’s youth academy, which he joined as a wide-eyed teenager in 2002. Apart from a loan spell at Crotone in 2007-08, his entire career has been with La Granata. In his first full season with il Toro in 2008-09, his club got relegated and has been in Serie B ever since. His progress has thus been not as documented as say some of the other defenders like Leo Bonucci of Juventus or Andrea Ranocchia of Inter Milan, but Ogbonna with his powerful displays and the technique and tactical acumen is probably the true heir to the generation of Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro. Ogbonna is comfortable in the centre of the defence but can also play on the left.. Torino is on the verge of returning to Serie A. But Ogbonna who has already been part of the Azzurri senior side quite a number of times can actually set a unique distinction of representing the Azzurri in a major competition while playing in the second division. And it will be a much deserved distinction too.

Republic of Ireland

Name: James McClean

Age: 23

Club: Sunderland

Position: Winger

National Caps: 1

Current Market value: €1.5m

Imagine being born in a country which has a furious political divide with a neighbour and then choosing to play for that neighbouring country when you come of age. James McClean was born in Northern Ireland and rose through the ranks, and was ultimately called up by the Northern Ireland manager for the senior team. But he rejected that and waited for the call-up from Republic of Ireland manager. He faced abuses for this decision from several Northern Irish tweeters. Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic of Ireland manager, did ultimately call him up but hasnotsinceplayedhimfrequently. If Ireland are to cause an upset or two in this group of death, then Trap would have to change his opinion about this 23-year-old winger because he has been explosive for his new club Sunderland. McClean made his Sunderland debut in a 1-0 win over Manchester City on January 1, 2012. And since then, he has not been dropped for a single match – playing 20 matches to score 4 goals and provide three assists. That puts him on fourth for the club in terms of goals scored and third in terms of assists, though those in front of him have been playing for the whole season. Already he has been put on a new contract for three years which is triple of what he initially signed for, when he joined Sunderland in the summer. But if Il Trap does give McClean a chance, expect a display which would attract the top clubs and test Sunderland’s resolve to hold onto their starlet.

Croatia

Name: Ivan Perišić

Age: 23

Club: Borussia Dortmund

Position: Attacking Midfielder

National Caps: 7

Current Market value: €6m

Of all the other players profiled in this group, Perišić is the one with the best chances of being a regular protagonist for his country in the Euros. He comes in as the latest in line of Croatian midfield playmakers. While two of them play for Tottenham and are well established, Perišić has made rapid strides to be counted as equivalent to both Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric. Coming from the famous academy of Hadjuk Split, Perišić was courted by some of the biggest talent spotters (including PSV Eindhoven and Ajax) but ultimately signed for French club Sochaux. After a couple of seasons, he was on a move to Club Brugge where he was voted Player of the Year in Belgium by his fellow footballers on the back of his 22 league goals. German champions Borussia Dortmund, who had lost Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid, came calling and signed him for €5.5m. In 38 matches for the club, he scored 8 times with four assists but spectacular goals like the one againstArsenal in Champions League brought him to worldwide notice. He has been a key player for Dortmund retaining the title they had won last year. Such progress was noted by the national team boss Slaven Bilić. So even though Perišić played for Croatia U21 team in 2011 European U21 championships, he was promptly called up to be part of the senior team and has been a regular feature ever since. If Croatia is to get out of this group of death, then Perišić will have his role to play alongside the other established tenors of Croatian midfield.

Will Spain write history?

The Spanish Armada were looted in the Champions league semifinals. Can the La Furia Roja be stopped? Indranath Mukherjee presents their case for Euro 2012

France won the Euro 2000 after winning the 1998 FIFA world cup. Germany had won the World Cup in 1974 after winning the Euro 1972. Spain will look to defend the Euro title and thus create history by winning Euro before and after World Cup championship.

Although the Spanish clubs have won the European club championship most number of times (14), the national team has been a perennial under-achiever until recently. With players like Alfredo Di Stefano, Luis Suarez and Ladislao Kubala, Spain was a fabulous side in the very first edition of Euro (1960). But General Franco decided to withdraw the team for political reasons before their match against the eventual champion Soviet Union. Earlier they had defeated Poland 4-2 away (Di Stefano 2, Suarez 2) and 3-0 at home (Di Stefano, Gensana, Gento). In the next edition, they went on to win the championship after beating Soviet Union 2-1 in the final. It had been a wait for 44 years after that to win the championship again in 2008 under Luis Aragonés. Vicente del Bosque and his golden generation will certainly like to continue their dominance in the international scene now. King Juan Carlos gave the 61 year old manager the title of the 1st Marquis of Del Bosque last year in recognition of his achievements in leading La Roja to World Cup glory in South Africa. He has now gone public saying that he aims to follow in the footsteps of Helmut Schoen, the West German legend, to become only the second coach to win both the World Cup and the European Championship.

In the qualifiers for the 2012 campaign, Spain has won all of their eight games quite convincingly. However, in the international friendlies since the world cup, Spain has lost a few games: a 4-1 defeat to Argentina in September 2010 in Buenos Aires followed by a 4-0 defeat against Portugal in Lisbon in November 2010 and a 2-1 against Italy in Bari in August 2011. They have also drawn 2 international friendlies during this time, 1-1 against Mexico in August 2010 and 2-2 against Costa Rica in November 2011. But friendlies are friendlies; the teams typically play between their hectic club football schedule and the managers often use these games to try out new players and combinations.

The news of the knee surgery of Carles Puyol might be a little bit of dampener for Spain but the fact is Puyol is not getting any younger. And Spain has enough leadership mettle in the team in their captain Iker Casillas and the Barcelona talisman Xavi Hernández. Another big advantage is their manager; Del Bosque knows how to manage big stars in the dressing room since his days as the manager of Galacticos. He led the Madrid giants to seven titles, including two Champions League and two domestic league crowns. As the manager of the national team, he not only has inherited a bunch of fantastic football players, he has also grabbed the current playing style of Football Club Barcelona – “tiki-taka” (short passing, movement and keeping possession). Although the current Spanish side may not always look as sublime as Barcelona, Del Bosque’s side plays extremely effective football as we have seen in the World Cup in South Africa.

The Barcelona trio may miss out going to Poland and Ukraine; Puyol for his knee surgery, Villa for lack of match practice and Pedro for his horrendous form


Del Bosque’s bigger worry however will be the condition of David Villa who had fractured his left tibia in Barcelona’s Club World Cup semi-final win over Al Sadd in Japan on December 15. ‘King David’ has not played any football since. He has recovered significantly but Del Bosque is in a serious selection dilemma: “We are on tenterhooks. We are worried because, of course, it is difficult for us to take someone who has not played one game.” Del Bosque will wait until May 27, two days ahead of the UEFA deadline, to have a look at Villa’s condition before announcing the final squad. It’s not easy to venture out to write history without someone who has scored 51 goals in 82 internationals. It’s even harder when Fernando Torres, in spite of scoring some goals of late, is not the same footballer any more. The form of Pedro Rodríguez has been so abysmal this season that he might not get picked up in the final squad by Del Bosque. In a situation like this, the striker who may emerge as the star of Spain and the Euro 2012 is Fernando Llorente. He scored critical goals for Spain in the qualifiers against Lithuania (2) and Scotland (1) and has been in good form this season scoring 28 goals in all competitions for Athletic Bilbao.

Fernando Llorente has the opportunity to become a star for Spain in Euro 2012

Spain got two friendlies coming up against Serbia (May 26) and South Korea (May 30) before the team travels to Poland and Ukraine and Del Bosque is planning to use these two games to try out some new faces like Juanfran Torres, Alvaro Dominguez, Adrián Lopez (all from the Europa League champions Atletico Madrid), Javi García (Benfica), Beñat (Betis), Bruno (Villarreal) and Isco (Malaga). Del Bosque hasn’t called anyone from the clubs which will feature in the Copa del Rey final.. From these clubs, Llorente and the Barcelona gang consisting of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets are almost certain to find their place to the final squad. Real Madrid already has five representatives in the list. Centre-back Raul Albiol may seem to be a surprise selection, but he will try to convince the boss that he can take the place of Puyol.

Spain will probably play with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Busquets and Xabi Alonso holding the midfield while Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva will take more creative roles for someone like Llorente upfront. Fabregas could bring in further creativity in the mix with Silva going a bit forward. Add to this, the exemplary positional sense of Busquets and Alonso will ensure that Spain will never struggle to create opportunities; whether the likes of Llorente, Torres or Soldado grab them will be interesting to see. They will surely miss the experience of Puyol at the back but Del Bosque should be able to come up with the right combination from the likes of Gerard Piqué, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Raul Albiol and Jordi Alba, the young left back from Valencia.

The final 23-man squad is expected to get announced on May 27th and might have new faces but the starting 11 will mostly have the usual suspects. They have chosen the facility at Schruns in Austria to prepare from May 22 to 31, the same venue they used before the 2010 World Cup finals.

Will Del Bosque be able to emulate his World Cup 2010 success in Euro 2012?

Spain will start their Euro 2012 campaign with the Group C match against Italy on June 10, before taking on Republic of Ireland and Croatia. If they can start in a winning note, topping the group will become a formality. Assuming that to be the case, they will face the runner up of group D in the quarter-final. England or Sweden whoever it is should be an easy game for Spain. From semi-final, we may expect to see a repeat of the 2010 FIFA World Cup fixture with Germany and Netherlands as the respective opponents. Spain would love to repeat the world cup performance against Germany in Poland and Ukraine and defend their Euro title. If they are able to do so, this will be the 3rd Euro trophy in the national team’s cabinet, and they will become the first nation to win three straight major tournaments.

UEFA Euro 2012 Preview: Group C

The Euro 2012 Group preview continues with Group C. This Group has two very strong contenders in Spain and Italy. Kinshuk Biswas discusses their chances and probable team line-ups along with those of Croatia and Republic of Ireland

Goalden Times continues its Group previews of Euro 2012 following Groups A and B, with Group C. This Group has two traditional superpowers of European football with two other teams who have done well in international tournaments whenever they have qualified for the finals. At first glance, it seems that the two big teams Spain and Italy will qualify easily at the expense of Croatia and Republic of Ireland. Although both the so-called weaker teams are no pushovers and have caused upsets before. Spain and Italy played out a goalless draw in the quarter-finals in 2008 before Spain went on to win in the penalty shoot-out. Incidentally this was the only match the Spanish team did not win outright in the last tournament.

  Spain

Resume: Champions 1964 and 2008. Runners up-1984. Quarter Finals-1996 and 2000

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Winner. P-8 W-8 D-0 L-0 GF-26 GA-6 GD-+20

Spain became only the third nation to be World and European champions simultaneously in 2010 after Germany (1972-1974) and France (1998-2000). This team is considered by many as one of the greatest ever. They will start as strong favourites to retain their crown as they qualified with an all win record. No team has successfully defended the Euro trophy and Spain may be the best bet to reverse this trend. In Vicente del Bosque they have a shrewd manager who has continued the good work of Luis Aragones. Del Bosque has successfully managed Real Madrid and knows how to handle a locker room full of superstars. Spain plays with a 4-3-3 formation which enables them to play their tiki-taka style evolved from the very successful Barcelona team. In Iker Casillas, their goalkeeper captain from Real Madrid they have one of the best in the world. Victor Valdes of Barcelona is an able replacement. In the centre of defence they have the pairing of Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid and Gerard Pique of Barcelona as first choice. The experienced Carlos Puyol of Barcelona and Carlos Marchena of Villareal are able replacements. In the right-back position, Alvaro Arbeloa of Real Madrid is likely to start. Sergio Ramos and Carlos Puyol have also played in the right-back positions when required. The left-back position is the only one in this team which is yet to have an automatic choice. Jordi Alba of Valencia has been used in recent times by Del-Bosque. Joan Capdevila of Benfica was recalled in the last friendly against Venezuela as cover. The team may play Puyol and Pique in the centre of defence and use Ramos on the right and Arbeloa on the left as well.

Their mid-field is possibly the strongest in the world – Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets of Barcelona with Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid as the first choice starters. There is ample cover in Cesc Fabregas of Barcelona and Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao. The manager is spoilt for choices in the forward line. Andres Iniesta and Pedro Rodriguez of Barcelona on the left and right are the likely starters. There are many options in these positions with David Silva of Manchester City and Juan Mata of Chelsea, both having great seasons for their clubs. The beauty is that all these players can play in the mid-field and the forward line which gives the manager great flexibility in his tactics. The centre-forward position is up for grabs as David Villa of Barcelona is unlikely to recover from a broken leg and Fernando Torres has been in poor goal-scoring form for his club Chelsea. Roberto Soldado of Valencia has made a strong claim by scoring a hat-trick in a friendly. Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao is the other player vying for this position.

Spain looks a very strong team and should easily qualify from the group stages. The only problem for Spain is the lack of a goal-scoring striker in good form. The quality of the other attacking players has managed to overcome this problem admirably till now. However, the team which keeps so much of possession and control of the match are prone to be wasteful in front of goal and sometimes, it hurts them, like against Switzerland in the World Cup 2010 opening match and against England in a friendly recently. They will definitely qualify and should easily reach the later stages of the tournament. However, with the expectant fans who have become used to success, nothing less than the trophy will count. The first match against the resurgent Italian team will possibly be the toughest test in the group stages.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Italy 25 7 10 8 25 29 -4
Croatia 4 2 1 1 5 4 +1
Ireland 24 13 7 4 48 18 +30

  Italy

Resume: Champions 1968. Runners up-2000. Semi- Finals-1980 and 1988

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group I Winner. P-10 W-8 D-2 L-0 GF-20 GA-2 GD-+18

The Azzuri have traditionally not performed well in the Euro championships compared to their World Cup exploits. Their current manager, Cesare Prandelli had been appointed before World Cup 2010 as a successor to Marcello Lippi. The disastrous performance in the tournament meant that Prandelli inherited a team with very low morale and was subjected to widespread criticism from the media and fans. However, one must remember that after the ignominious exit at the 1966 World Cup, Italy managed to bounce back and win the Euro Championships in 1968. If the current Italian team manages to repeat that feat, it will not be a major surprise at least to us at Goalden Times. Qualification was relatively easy, helped by rioting opposition fans at Genoa who disrupted the match against Serbia after six minutes. Italy was awarded the match 3-0. Prandelli favours a 4-3-1-2 formation. In goal they have the team captain and one of the all time greats, Gianluigi Buffon of Juventus. Morgan De Sanctis of Napoli is an experienced substitute for Buffon. The centre of defence will be marshalled by the Juventus duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. Domenico Criscito of Zenit FC and Andrea Ranocchia of Inter are the substitute players in these positions. In the right-back position, Christian Maggio of Napoli is the first choice. Ignazio Abate of Milan and Mattia Cassani of Fiorentina are able replacements. The first choice left-back is Federico Balzaretti of Palermo. Angelo Ogbonna of Torino has been used in left-back along with Chiellini and Criscito. Ogbonna can play in the centre of defence as well.

In the mid-field, Andrea Pirlo of Juventus will play as the regista. Claudio Marchisio of Juventus or Antonio Nocerino of AC Milan will play on the left and Daniele De Rossi or Thiago Motta of Paris Saint-Germain on the right. Alberto Aquilani of AC Milan and Riccardo Montolivo of Fiorentina will be vying to play in the hole behind the strikers. Prandelli has rotated players in this position by using all three and sometimes Montolivo as a substitute on the right. The unfortunate illness of Antonio Cassano of Milan has possibly robbed the team of its best forward. There are reports which suggest that he may be getting back to full fitness. Giampaolo Pazzini of Inter, Alessandro Matri of Juventus, Sebastian Giovinco of Parma and Fabio Borini of Roma have all been tried. Giovinco, who is in terrific form, is perhaps the favourite to start in the absence of Cassano. Mario Balotelli of Manchester City is the favourite to partner Cassano or Giovinco. Although Prandelli has mentioned in recent interviews that Balotelli’s off-field antics weigh heavily against his selection.

Italians are notoriously slow starters in major international tournaments. They come into their own in the knock-out rounds and latter stages of the tournaments. This time they have to be careful as the first match is against Spain and is going to be possibly their toughest test. Croatia is one of the few national teams to have a positive record against Italy and have beaten them in the finals of the World Cup in 2002. The Irish are no pushovers either and in their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni they have someone who possibly knows more about the Italian players and tactics than anybody. Ireland recently defeated Italy 2-0 under the guidance of Trapattoni in a neutral venue. Italians generally have a very good defence. The nucleus of the defence is from Juventus, who are still unbeaten in Serie A this season.  The problem is Italian teams tend to get defensive after taking the lead, which has hurt them in the past. All said, the Italians are the masters of gaining positive results and should qualify for the knock-out stages. They are a good bet to go all the way if they make it to the latter stages of the tournament.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 25 8 10 7 29 25 +4
Croatia 5 1 1 3 7 7 0
Ireland 11 7 2 2 18 9 +9

 Croatia

Resume: Quarter- Finals-1996 and 2008

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group F Runners up. P-10 W-7 D-1 L-2 GF-18 GA-7 GD-+11

Playoff vs Turkey 3-0 aggregate (3-0,0-0)

Croatia is a relatively new team which was formed after the break-up of Yugoslavia. With Serbia, the Croatians have the best record after the break-up of the country. The Croatian team is managed by Slaven Bilić, one of the members of the golden generation of players which took the country to a third position in the World Cup in 1998. Bilić, who has been in charge since 2006, prefers using the 4-4-2 formation.  Stipe Pletikosa of Rostov FC is a very experienced goalkeeper. Danijel Subašić of Monaco is the second choice. The central defence has the experienced Josip Šimunić of Dinamo Zagreb and Gordon Schildenfeld of Eintracht Frankfurt. Vedran Ćorluka of Bayer Leverkusen is the first choice left-back. Danijel Pranjić of Bayern Munich is an able replacement and can play in the midfield as well. Domagoj Vida of Dinamo is likely to be the right-back. Vida has looked solid in his eight appearances for the national side. He has also allowed the national captain, Darijo Srna of Shakter Donetsk to play in the right wing where he has been a revelation in place of his normal right-back position. Ćorluka can also fill in at the right-back position, if required.

Bilić has a lot of choices in the midfield.  Ivan Rakitić of Sevilla and the highly rated Luka Modrić of Tottenham Hotspur will play on the left side. Both the players can play wide and in the left-central midfield position, if required.  Pranjić will be the substitute, if necessary.  The national captain Srna will start as right winger based on his recent exploits. Niko Kranjčar of Tottenham Hotspur and Ognjen Vukojević of Dynamo Kyiv will compete for the right-central mid-fielder position.  Mario Mandžukić of VfL Wolfsburg is the main striker. Ivica Olić of Bayern Munich, Eduardo of Shakter Donetsk and Nikica Jelavić of Everton will all be vying to start with him.

Croatia is a team which plays with a lot of pressing and counter-attacking style of play. They accede possession to the opponents and try to press them with the mid-fielders and forwards working very hard. The problem is this may not work with teams like Spain and Italy who are very comfortable in possession. Croatians are lucky that they are facing the Irish in the first match. If they manage to qualify from this group, it will be a huge success.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 4 1 1 2 4 5 -1
Italy 5 3 1 1 7 7 0
Ireland 6 1 3 2 5 7 -2

  Republic of Ireland (Ireland)

Resume: Group Stage 1988.

Road to the finals: Qualifying Group B Runners up. P-10 W-6 D-3 L-1 GF-15 GA-7 GD-+8

Playoff vs Estonia 5-1 aggregate (4-0,1-1)

The Republic of Ireland or Ireland team was unlucky to miss out on qualification to the World Cup in 2010 eliminated by France in the play-off due to an impromptu game of handball by Thierry Henry which resulted in a goal. Ireland is managed by Giovanni Trapattoni (Il Trap), one of the most experienced and successful coaches in the game. Trapattoni has generally used the 4-4-1-1 formation for the Irish team. However recently he has been favouring the 4-4-2 formation. In goal, Ireland has one of the most experienced players of the English Premiership in Shay Given of Aston Villa.  Kieran Westwood of Sunderland is the second choice. Richard Dunne of Aston Villa was outstanding for the Irish in their Euro qualification match against Russia and is the first choice centre-back with Sean St-Ledger of Leicester City. Darren O’Dea of Leeds United and Shane Duffy of Everton are the main replacements. Stephen Ward of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stephen Kelly of Fulham are both vying for the right-back position. John O’Shea of Sunderland is the first choice left-back. Kelly has played at left-back too.

The mid-field has a lot of experience with Keith Andrews of West Bromwich Albion and Glen Whelan of Stoke City in the central positions. Damien Duff of Fulham is the left winger and Aiden McGeady of Spartak Moscow is the first choice right winger. Stephen Hunt of Wolverhampton is an able substitute and can play in both wings. Seamus Coleman of Everton, the Irish Messi has been in good form and should push for a starting berth.  There are some good youngsters like James McCarthy of Wigan and James McClean of Sunderland in the reserves. The forward line is marshalled by the experienced Robbie Keane of Los Angeles Galaxy who plays in the hole behind the striker in case of a 4-4-1-1 formation. The lone striker is usually Kevin Doyle of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Doyle and Keane play as two strikers in the 4-4-2 formation. The team has the West Brom duo of Shane Long and Simon Cox in reserve. Jonathan Walters of Stoke City and Anthony Stokes of Celtic have also been used by Trapattoni.

The Irish will give a good and robust account of themselves in all matches. They have a disadvantage in that they lack quality players to really trouble the better teams. The problems with Trapattoni’s tactics and team selections are manifold. Their first match against Croatia will be crucial as it will set the tone for the tougher tests against Spain and Italy to follow.  It will be a very difficult task for them to qualify out of this group. However, one can never discount ‘the luck of the Irish’.

Head to Head

Team

Played Won Drawn Lost GF GA

GD

Spain 24 4 7 13 18 48 -30
Italy 11 2 2 7 9 18 -9
Croatia 6 2 3 2 7 5 +2

Final Verdict:

The final verdict has four categories of teams: 1) Sure-shot, which means that the team is the favourite to progress from the group. 2) Likely is the team that is not the total favourite but is the second favourite to qualify. 3) Dark Horse is a team which can reach the quarter-finals but has to overcome similar teams or favourites to do so. 4) Upset means that the team reaching the quarter-finals will be a major surprise. In groups there maybe more than a single team in each category.

Sure-shot: Spain

Likely:  Italy

Dark Horse: Croatia

Upset: Republic of Ireland